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The first time I took the ACT test I had to confront the shame of not stacking up. It was only a practice test for sophomores, designed to remove some of the vague trepidation that percolates around standardized testing. I remember beginning the test, leafing through the pages, confronted with a challenge. I knew I wasn't the smartest kid or the best at any of the subjects, not in math, english, reading, or science, but I was confident I could do well. I took the test as well as I could and pushed through each section as if to prove myself. I ended up with a 22. I've grown up more since then, and that shame has become more familiar- lately, from applying to be English Sterling Scholar and essentially failing: I submitted an application and interviewed for the spot, and was promptly declined in a cordial letter just days later. The worst part is that there were glaring grammatical errors in the letter, sent to me by the head of the English department. There are grammatical errors bound to be found in a post of 900 words, to be sure, but in a pithy, formal letter? I don't have the highest grades or the most rounded set of extra-curricular activities, but I am passionate about english. I read on my own, I write everyday. I tinker with english and try to understand its power more than I do anything else; all my friends know that about me. I consider myself an ideal candidate to represent my school's english program. To apply I was required to boast of myself. Parts of boasting aren't natural for me. I like talking about my interest in reading and writing, and I like explaining my points of view. But I dread approaching it as if to outcompete my peers. Other categories for sterling scholar are very clear cut with the processes by which applicants are selected heavily based on enumerative knowledge, basically weeding out the unqualified by sheer objectivity. Proficiency in math is determined by your ability to solve complex problems with definite answers; Social Science requires comprehensive knowledge of court cases, US history, modern politics and current issues. Competitions that inherently support pitting peers against another like this so easily degenerate into their objective components. I've always thought english defied that sort of sisyphean search for the elite. It's much more bulshitty than that. Writing and reading are built on communication, something fundamentally subjective and difficult to compartmentalize. Mixing a competitive spirit in with something that's based on forming human connections feels misguided, highlighting all the frustrations you get when asking people to be better than another. When I interviewed, I focused on what English means to me, how I use and enjoy seeing it be used to express something. Shortly into the interview I began to talk about the potential of language and what it can convey. I decided to avoid name dropping authors or dates of monumental pieces of literature, or even trying to impress them with meaty books I'd read. I just wanted them to understand that I had a passion about the subject. I left that room feeling confident that I'd made a good impression. Does anyone really listen to me? I occasionally get comments on my blog from family, sometimes from friends who have bothered to read if the subject really pertains to or interests them. Whenever I mention being a page in DC I get a flurry of comments – from other pages. Perhaps they are the only few willing to let me express myself and then validate me for it. But still, I get little helpful criticism. I have a way of doing things in my head, but I don't know if they translate well to others, and I don't know if the ideas I'm expressing make any sense. Does anyone understand what I'm saying? Should I be spelling out everything for readers? I'm not even sure if the panel of interviewers knew what to make of me. Am I extraordinary or just annoying? When I saw my first ACT score, it felt wrong. Wasn't I better than a 22? The only thing worse than performing badly is performing badly while deluding yourself into thinking you're doing just fine. I never really accepted that test score as a fact about myself, more that it was only a possibility in the permutations of my life; a frightening example of what could be, not what was. I'm not used to feeling disappointment in myself. Disappointment from others has always felt rote - I've always assumed I will never be able to match others' expectations of me. As I write this I'm disappointing someone for forgetting to ask someone a question today; another because I was late to something. Disappointment is built into daily interaction. But there's something initially disturbing about being disappointed in yourself: it's not the guilt of consciously making wrong decisions, it's the wrenching cesspool of social anxiety in the back of our head that feasts on our failures: that maybe we just aren't good enough. Perhaps we aren't capable of the things we really wish to achieve, and maybe the permutation we imagined is simply unattainable. Was it ever possible? It's those thoughts that screw with my sense of self-efficacy, something that becomes only more precious as we grow up into the boundless insecurities of a mature understanding. Is this what it means to grow up? If so, it's scary as hell.


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